Jesus returned last week -- at least to Newsweek. The ultimate in celebrity coverage is a staple of the newsweeklies, appearing whenever a circulation miracle is needed and there's no school shooting or Kennedy to get righteous about. "These are brazen attempts to move merchandise," admits one editor. Readers, however, appear to be losing faith. Time trotted Him out December 6, with Antonello da Messina's Christ at the Pillory peering out rather dejectedly over the headline JESUS AT 2000. It sold a measly 195,000 newsstand copies -- well below Person of the Century Albert Einstein (366,500), Michael Jordan (300,129), John F. Kennedy Jr. (1.3 million), and Time's average of 232,600. (He did beat out Oprah and Ricky Martin.) Newsweek's 2000 YEARS OF JESUS did a little better last year, selling 238,500 on the newsstand, smiting Muhammad Ali and those pagan Blair Witch kids, and modestly beating the 191,400 Newsweek average -- but George Stephanopoulos sold more. Newsweek's latest Jesus cover uses a watery-eyed Van Dyck that looks a bit like Paul McCartney. It was supposed to run two weeks before, over Ash Wednesday, but then that 6-year-old killed his classmate. "Jesus was bumped!" says one staff member, though Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker says that the deferred issue still "had a strong news peg, with the pope's trip." Besides, John Paul doesn't sell: Time's 1998 pope-and-Castro cover and U.S. News & World Report's "The Struggles of John Paul II" both got nailed. "Well below average," says U.S. News's editor, Steve Smith. "He's an awfully familiar figure now." Nevertheless, religion covers remain sacred: A U.S. News spokesperson says, "We run one religious or Bible or Jesus cover per year." So what's the new gospel? Compare Time's "Who Was Moses?" cover's sales (165,600) with the Star Wars-prequel issue's (320,570). The Scriptures, it seems, are no match for the Force.